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"Identity liberalism" and all that jazz.

So, I've had a few people on my social media share "The End of Identity Liberalism" amidst rather a lot of concern about how it's really important to stop paying so much attention to diversity in our institutions and instead pay more attention to commonality.

Rather than keep derailing those conversations with walls of text, my thoughts here.

So, I respect the concern that a group based on a shared "identity" (that is, a common demographic trait such as race or religion or sexual preference or elevated risk of being denied a hotel room or of having your children taken away or of being shot in the street or something like that) will tend to ignore the interests of those who don't share that trait. And I agree that this happens, up to a point.

For example as I was growing up, I went to a Jewish school with Jewish teachers and Jewish students, and in addition to the usual school curriculum we also learned about Judaism. And no doubt we were excluding the interests of non-Jews.

For example, queer political-action groups that focus on getting queer-friendly politicians elected don't tend to pay a lot of attention to the needs and concerns of straight people.

And so on.

And my question to the first friend who raised this issue was:
Does this problem not also exist for a group reliably characterized by a common identity, but not based on it?

Like, for example... if a bunch of straight men get together (hypothetically) to form a Straight Men's Society dedicated to the interests of straight men, I understand the reasoning that says they can be expected to exclude the interests of other demographics.

But if a bunch of straight men get together (again, hypothetically) to form a Senate dedicated to passing laws, can they similarly be expected to exclude the interests of other demographics?

Or is calling themselves a Senate enough for them to avoid the problem?

It seems like an important question to me, because I don't think calling themselves a Senate is enough.

So when I see a group of queer citizens getting together to promote getting queer advocates elected to political office, sure, I acknowledge that as "identity politics" in the sense Lilla means, but I also see it as an attempt to counter a pre-existing "identity politics" that has been running the show for years.

Ditto for POC citizens, female citizens, Jewish citizens, Muslim citizens, transgender citizens, immigrant citizens, all sorts of "identities"... I don't just look at their demographics, I also look at the demographics of the "mainstream" they're attempting to influence.

And when I hear people complain about "identity politics" in a way that obects to the former but not the latter... that expresses concern that the POC, queer, female, Jewish, Muslim, immigrant, transgender, etc. groups might exclude the interests of other groups, but is unconcerned that the straight, male, white, Christian, Protestant, etc. groups might do the same thing... well, that leaves me skeptical about just what exactly we're supposed to be concerned about.

Because, honestly, if I believed that the alternative to "identity politics" is that we include everyone's interests, I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

But I don't.

More than that -- I think if it were, we wouldn't see so much "identity politics" in the first place.

I think "identity-specific" organizations and spaces are a response to the perceived inability of "mainstream" organizations and spaces to address the concerns of marginalized communities. And if we want those sorts of spaces to fade away, the best way to do that is to improve on that inability.

And when we instead blame the marginalized communities for looking to each other for a support that the mainstream doesn't provide, we're making a mistake.

Speaking personally, for example, I've been really pleased by the ability of significant parts of the greater Boston area over the last decade or so to include my family in a civic life that includes both gay and straight men. Like, it's been years since I've personally worried about being denied service or beaten up for being queer. (As long as I'm careful where I travel, anyway.)

And not unrelatedly, I don't spend a lot of time in primarily queer environments. My world can be a lot bigger than that, a lot bigger than my counterparts from 50 years ago... not because I'm somehow different or better than they are, but because a lot of other environments have done a lot of work to become safe for me.

And I really hope that this will remain true moving forward, expand to other states, and encompass additional marginalized identities over the rest of my life.

I really do.

But if it doesn't? Well, if that happens, you can criticize me and my family for looking to queer communities, Jewish communities, Hispanic communities, communities of immigrants, to provide support.

We can't stop you.

But you'll be mistaken to do so.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 21st, 2016 11:48 pm (UTC)
Within the liberal community, I think this whole idea of "identity politics" (like "special interest groups" before that) willfully misunderstands the nested nature of identity, groupishness, and politics. Politics—all politics—is about groups competing WITHIN a larger, cohesive "political unit." American "identity politics" is almost all about a feeling that one (or more) of the identity pieces people carry around with them is not not being treated as fully part of politics of the political unit. The idea that this is divisive requires a kind of blindness to that quality of carving-away from the whole.

Pretty much every group I've heard talked about as "identity politics" calls on the basic political nature of the American state: that the standard for citizenship is birth or naturalization, period, and that any other differentiation before the law or as regards participating in American politics is, essentially un-American. That's what pretty much all identity activism boils down to: Do not treat us as second-class citizens. Do not try to use the powers of a government established by the will of the people to then selectively undo the civil rights guaranteed to all citizens.

That this has been successfully cast as anything other than foundationally patriotic is an embarrassment to the principles of the Republic.
Nov. 24th, 2016 06:16 pm (UTC)
Re: confusion
Sorry this was anonymous. Not sure why it was. it was me.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 02:18 pm (UTC)
examples in support of your point
It's not just "calling themselves a Senate": nobody says "identity politics" or objects when a group of people define themselves, and work together, as "parents of school-aged children," "Yale alumni," "Arlington dog owners," or any number of other generally approved things with demographic and usually "identity group" implications.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 07:46 pm (UTC)
I think the fundamental error is that liberals/progressives consistently make the assumption that identity will beat ideology and for many people that's simply not true.

That doesn't mean stop paying attention to diversity, but recognize that it isn't the most important thing to most people most of the time.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 08:08 pm (UTC)
I think one would have to be almost willfully blind to be left with the impression that diversity is a high priority for most people.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 09:44 pm (UTC)
I am less and less certain of that. The more numerical analysis one does of the election results the more anomalous Trump's win seems. He lost the popular vote. He underperformed traditional Republican Senate candidates. There is preliminary data that he may also have lost the majority of the votes of lower-income whites.

I would never say it's a high priority for "most" people, but it does seem to matter to a larger percentage of folk than generally acknowledged these days.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 11:33 pm (UTC)
(nods) Agreed that it's not a high priority for most people.

Can you connect the dots more explicitly on your reasoning from the demographic anomalies in Trump's win to the idea that diversity matters to a larger percentage of folk than generally acknowledged? I'm not necessarily disagreeing, I'm just not following your thinking process.
Nov. 23rd, 2016 03:03 am (UTC)
I generally assume that Trump supporters, even the non-deplorables, generally favor a me-first, isolationist, and ego-centric point of view. These people I would say value diversity less because it means placing others' issues ahead of one's own, and possibly even accepting less for oneself in order to ensure a more equitable distribution.

Conversely, I believe that the majority (who did vote for Ms Clinton) are accepting of the philosophy of diversity and willing to participate in a redistributive system even if it means something less for themselves.
Nov. 23rd, 2016 03:44 am (UTC)
Ah, gotcha.
Cool, thanks.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 10:58 pm (UTC)
Entirely agreed.

Thank you.
Nov. 22nd, 2016 11:40 pm (UTC)
Something about a dump truck, right?
Nov. 22nd, 2016 11:49 pm (UTC)
In fact, I thought of citing my nonexistent dump truck, but knew I'd done so to you recently. :D

Man, that essay finessed so much stuff it slid right off the screen.
Nov. 23rd, 2016 05:57 am (UTC)
Huh. Can you explain that last sentence a bit further?
Nov. 23rd, 2016 12:44 pm (UTC)
I don't want to look at the essay again, because it annoyed me!

But without looking, a major one was The Important Issues Everyone Cares About. Which does not include existential concerns of all us naughty Identity Groups. Obviously.

The US and British history of the past two hundred years-- if no other chunks of history-- is replete with (White) (straight) (male) activists demanding the support of women and people of colour, who Should Wait Our Turn. (Parentheses intended to signal options-- they might not all occur in a given instance.)
Nov. 23rd, 2016 02:55 pm (UTC)
Ah, I see. (nods) Yeah, agreed.
Nov. 23rd, 2016 02:07 pm (UTC)
If someone steadfastly asserts that infringements on their right to ignore the ways in which other groups are mistreated is itself mistreatment of a special interest group, there's really no way to change their mind, I suspect. I mean, that's kind of the core of the article, when you unpack it all - just a really verbose "you're just intolerant of my intolerance!" Except the author isn't even willing to own the intolerance, only making a generalized plea to accommodate the intolerance of others.

I mean, you don't have to think that hard to realize that if a "what pronoun would you prefer" fill in the blank is enough to entirely disrupt the college experience of someone who identifies with a traditional gender they also present as, that maybe everyone who DOESN'T meet that qualification is having their experience disrupted even more by being identified by a pronoun they don't identify with, right? It just goes back to what you said, really - sure, we would all accomplish a lot more if we focused entirely on the interests of people whose interests are already be accommodated - for values of "we" restricted to exactly those people.
Nov. 23rd, 2016 02:58 pm (UTC)

I mean, there's ways to help change minds of the sorts of people who defend their differential social power at such length, but they are expensive, and resources are limited.
Nov. 26th, 2016 09:11 pm (UTC)
all very true. as this tweet noted "Guys, if your priority was genuinely aiding the working class, you wouldn't keep putting "white" before "working class".". it's only "identity politics" when it involves marginalised groups.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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